Obama Wins Debate, but Race Is Still Close

Despite the president's strong showing, there are reasons that Mitt Romney remains in the running.

Getty Images
Getty Images

(The Root) — President Obama won Monday night’s foreign policy debate. By and large, Mitt Romney just endorsed existing administration policies. It is at once astonishing and pathetic.

Romney tried to couch his positions in different language, but the substance of what he said is that “the president is doing the right thing.” Romney accepted Obama policy on everything, including a withdrawal date from Afghanistan. Amazing. For now, however, I don’t care.

The question for me is why is this election so close? Given that the Republican Party adopted the most far-right-wing platform in years, why do the polls show a dead-even contest? Given the Republican nominee — an Etch A Sketch candidate who has flipped and flopped and played with the facts as no other candidate before him — how can this election be so close? Really, I can’t sleep. How is this possible?

There are three big problems here. Before I go into them, let me give the obvious answer: It’s the economy, stupid! If unemployment were lower, if the economic-growth rate were more robust, an incumbent president would be in no real jeopardy. But that is not the whole issue. And it is these other complicating factors that are worthy of some consideration.

Let’s be fair and balanced: Part of the problem is Obama the candidate. Barack Obama has made several missteps that put him in a more vulnerable position. Save for the inaugural address itself, he has not done enough to define for Americans just how gargantuan an economic hole we had fallen into. As a result, the long-term nature of the economic abyss out of which we are slowly but steadily crawling hasn’t been clarified often enough for the American people.

Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was the first mainstream, almost honest discussion of how severe the economic problems facing us actually are and why no president, no matter his or her philosophy or political party, could have solved them in four years’ time. Obama should have said as much, clearly, long ago.

Obama took far too long to appreciate that Republican intransigence had reached new, historic and irresponsible levels. Like many folks, I applauded Obama for bringing a new attitude to Washington. I respected his efforts to reach across the aisle. It was a big part of his appeal to bring “change” to politics in Washington.

When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders, however, dedicate themselves to making Obama “a one-term president” and show no sign whatsoever of meaningful negotiation to avert a credit-rating downgrade for the U.S. government and create a debt-ceiling debacle, the time for reaching across the aisle has ended.

And for me, Obama has not been politic. What do I mean by that? He has generally tried to pursue policies that make sense in the long run. Whether in education, the economy or foreign affairs, the president has leaned toward doing what serves U.S. interests in the long run.

This is perfectly reasonable and sensible. But in the world of real electoral politics, it is not enough to be right. You must also have worked to build the political context. You must have a message. For too much of his political agenda, Obama has settled for the substance of being “right” and a single big oratorical event like a State of the Union to get the message across. In this age of nonstop campaign politics, that is simply not enough.